Clint Eastwood is Dirty Harry for the fifth and last time in a routine crime drama with a touch of the bizarre. After helming SUDDEN IMPACT himself, Eastwood left the direction of THE DEAD POOL in the hands of stuntman Buddy Van Horn, who also directed him in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (although it’s likely Clint was always the man in charge on the set).
The screenplay by Steve Sharon by a story by Sharon, Sandy Shaw, and Durk Pearson is a bit ahead of its time with its take on media and celebrity. It also offers one of the series’ wittiest setpieces: a parody of BULLITT’s car chase involving Dirty Harry being pursued by a radio control racecar containing a bomb. The Dirty Harrys have always contained wry humor—usually Eastwood wisecracks—but THE DEAD POOL’s jokes are broader, such as a mean takeoff on Clint-hating film critic Pauline Kael and Harry’s use of a gigantic harpoon to nail a suspect.
The murder of rock star Johnny Squares (future superstar Jim Carrey) kicks off a strange series of killings in San Francisco. It appears to be centered around the set of a cheap horror movie being directed by pretentious Brit Peter Swan (played by Liam Neeson, another future superstar) and a sick game called “Dead Pool,” in which participants predict the deaths of celebrities in hazardous occupations. San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) discovers his own name is on Swan’s list. When others on the filmmaker’s Dead Pool are also murdered, Harry, whose enemies are legion in San Francisco, has to look over his shoulder more often than he already did.
The least of the five Dirty Harry films, THE DEAD POOL suffers from a weak villain and its simplistic view of horror movies, illustrated by out-of-context clips from THE PACK, IT’S ALIVE III, and TIME AFTER TIME, three good movies (the latter isn’t even horror, but all were owned by Warner Brothers, THE DEAD POOL’s studio).
A box office flop in the summer of 1988, the film holds up as a solid police actioner with excellent photography by Jack Green (UNFORGIVEN). Green and Van Horn stage the murders like high-end slashers, including a tasteful throat-slashing that looks almost beautiful. Lalo Schifrin scores his fourth Dirty Harry (Jerry Fielding did THE ENFORCER), but it’s his weakest of the series.